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Heating Vail Valley homes with electricity is a viable option

Bill Sepmeier and Matthew Charles
Vail, CO, Colorado

Heating a Vail Valley home is generally the biggest living expense this area presents to year ’round residents, but it doesn’t have to be such big a share of the monthly bill.

A recent evaluation of a mostly glass-walled mountain home ” with great views but woefully insulated ” uncovered several issues that, combined, raised winter heating bills by over 500 percent.

The house is located in a rural area and, like many homes that don’t have access to natural gas, the builder used propane-fired hot water baseboard heating, even though the home was connected to Holy Cross Energy. Why? “Because everybody knows it’s too expensive to heat with electricity.”



After last winter’s propane bill of more than $4,600, the owner decided to find out if Five years of propane consumption records showed the house burned about 200 gallons per month between November and April, or about 1,200 gallons per year.

Propane delivers 90,000 Btu per gallon at sea level, but at 7,500 feet elevation its energy output is only about 54,000 Btu per gallon. With an 80 percent efficient cast iron boiler, after losses, each gallon of propane could actually only provide about 43,000 Btu per hour to the heating system.



The owner decided to replace the propane boiler with a new electric boiler, which is 99 percent efficient. Since only 43,000 Btu was really available for the baseboard heating water, the new electric boiler was ordered at 50,000 Btu per hour.

Electrically-speaking, that’s a-15 kilowatt boiler.

The old boiler was called upon and actually operated about 33 percent of the time, so to estimate the cost of operation we used an equivalent duty for the electric boiler.



This calculated to about $290 per month in electricity at local rates. If we calculate the six month winter season, our new heating cost is $1,740 per year. This is the equivalent to propane, presently about $2.60 a gallon, falling to $1.44 a gallon ” it that ever happens, it it won’t be something to count on for long-term relief.

There’s more to the story. Thanks to the cost of propane and heating oil nationwide last year, these new electro-boilers are on back order everywhere. Since the new boiler was to arrive after cold weather did, the home owner purchased several new electric space heaters; two electric convection heaters and a couple of mica-radiant heaters. The garden level bedrooms each got a radiant heater, the other two convection heaters were put on the main floor, where they also heat a open loft bedroom and bath on the third story.

All together, these heaters only draw about 4 kilowatts when they’re all on full-blast ” far less than the new 15-kilowatt electro-boiler, and can provide 13,650 Btu per hour.

Temperatures outside have been down below zero at night for almost two weeks, but the little electric heaters met the home’s needs. The house has remained a tropical 72-74 degrees on average on all three levels.

The cost? It would be $239 a month ” but only if the owners ran the heaters 24/7. But the heaters do click on and off regularly. From the past two months’ experience, the heaters are only on about half the time, and the actual electric bill for heat has been around $100 per month. In the meantime, the new electro-boiler has arrived, but it still hasn’t been installed. That’s become a summer project.

How can space heaters perform better than a real baseboard system?

Well, baseboard radiators are limited to about 500 Btu’s of heat output per foot of length and there’s only so much length area along the edge of the rooms they were built into. It turned out that the total real heating capability of the baseboard system wasn’t much more than the space heaters are making. The baseboard radiators are also directly under this particular home’s best feature ” its all-glass walls ” so a good portion of the baseboard heat was going right out the window. Placing the radiators in the interiors of the rooms heats them before the heat loss occurs at the windows.

The lesson? If you’re paying a lot for heat, question your home’s insulation capability, obviously, but also look into the heating system design. Don’t assume that electricity is too expensive or that the home’s boiler was properly sized or set up, or that the radiators were properly placed.

Bill Sepmeier is chief technical officer and Matthew Charles is the design and sales manager for Grid Feeders in Eagle-Vail. Contact them at 970-688-4347.


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